Finding Wisdom for Friday — Umberto Eco on Fascism

Blogging has been somewhat sparse of late because of, well, life.  But I seem to be approaching a patch that will allow me to once again explore subjects of interest.

While I was busy the world lost one of its leading lights on February 19th, 2016, as Umberto Eco passed away at the age of 84.  His voice will be sorely missed.  It will be missed in particular because his best writing reflected his main concerns regarding human communication.  As such, he is acknowledged as one of the founders of what has come to be known as interpretive semiotics.  Semiotics is the study of signs and processes in human communication such as analogy, metaphor, symbolism, among other forms.  What separates it from linguistics is that it takes into account all of the means of human interpretation and communications that exist and, in Eco’s synthesis, how each receiver interprets, incorporates, and processes such signs and sign processes.

Aside from his significant academic pursuits, he was best known in our own country for his popular novel The Name of the Rose (1980), which also was made into a very good and popular film.  But in surveying his seven novels, for me his best writing focused on the question of fascism and how it appealed to the people of his native Italy.  His knowledge of the subject was very personal, having been inculcated into the cult of personality centered around Mussolini when he was a youth.  At the age of 10 he describes how he was proud of his young fascist uniform, writing paeans to the fascist cause.  As such, in novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), he reveals to the reader the sub-textual signs that continue to communicate fascist messages in many forms of popular media, life, and culture.

Thus I find his writing, which uses multiple devices to approach obliquely what otherwise was and is a tragic and horrific chapter of Italian and European history, to be very similar to the devices used by the contemporary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro in film.  In the case of del Toro, who was born in 1964–well after the events of his concern–he approaches the subject of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Spanish fascism.  This has only recently been a subject of critical processing in Hispanic society, especially since the death of the Spanish dictator Franco, and the subsequent rejection of other neo-fascist regimes in South America and elsewhere in favor of liberal democracy.  Still, it is a very painful and sensitive subject, and so del Toro uses the devices of fantasy and gothic horror to approach and record the horrors and cruelty of those times in movies such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)–probably two among the best films of our young 21st century.

To Americans, however, fascism is a confusing, esoteric, and fungible political term.  For the generations that lived during the 1920s and 1930s, the meaning was more immediate and its dangers best exemplified in the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935).  But the term has been appropriated over the years, and misused recently, most notably by the fact-challenged Jonah Goldberg, whose silly and frivolous mental gymnastics in Liberal Fascism (2008) contributed greatly to obfuscating the term in uniquely Orwellian ways which, of course, was the book’s intent.

Our times seem to suggest that it is time to end the silliness where it exists in throwing around the name.  So I think it is important to revisit what Eco had to say about the topic.  He had, after all, actually lived life from his most impressionable years as a fascist, embraced it and all that it stood for, articulated its meaning, and then was able–upon liberation–to free himself from its grip, reflect upon it, and identify what it is and its core characteristics.

The article in which he most effectively dealt with this subject was in the June 22, 1995 edition of the New York Review of Books.  Note that many of these characteristics by themselves or in some combination can be found in other political movements, ideologies, and social movements, but none contain all of these characteristics applied quite in the same manner and combination to society.

I have listed the characteristics below, and flesh out one.  Note that fascism as he describes it, and has discussed it, isn’t identified as being on the right or left of what in the modern U.S. is identified as the political spectrum.  Fascism can appropriate many of the agenda items and disguise itself using the raiment of the conventional political parties and ideologies, as well as the more mundane imagery of contemporary life.  They are:

  1. The cult of tradition.  In giving his example Eco points out that the cult of tradition has existed in many forms over the course of human history.  But in attributing this characteristic to fascism he points to its assertion that “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”
  2. Traditionalism implies a rejection of modernism.  According to Eco’s analysis, the Nazis and Fascists embraced technology, but not the modern systems and processes that made it possible.  “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.  In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. Irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.  To the fascist, “thinking is a form of emasculation.”  Action without reflection is valued above all other things.  Anti-intellectualism rules. Where there are fascist intellectuals, their role is to attack modern culture for betraying traditional values.
  4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernity.  Science encourages disagreement to advance learning.  For fascism, disagreement and discerning distinctions are emblematic of treason.
  5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.  Fascism exploits the fear of difference–targeting intruders as the Other.  It is inherently racist.
  6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.  In Italy as in all cases, Fascism appealed to the fears of a frustrated middle class: “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.  Note to Birthers.
  8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.  To fascists, the targeted groups are both weak and easily overcome, but also powerful and sinister, plotting to take away the rights and privileges that is the select group’s birthright.  This contradiction is key to stoking fear and provides motivation for further action.
  9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.  Life is a constant battle against the enemy at every level of society and thought, which will only be resolved with a great final battle.
  10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.  Fascism depends on the belief in, and allegiance to, the strong, especially a strong ruler.  The weak deserve their lot.
  11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.  Fascist societies are obsessed with hero worship, especially in the martial professions and the vanguard of the movement, where the heroic death for the cause is idolized, especially when someone else is doing the dying.
  12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.  Control of sexual mores and procreation is central to fascist movements.  Demonization of non-compliance is essential.
  13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.  Democratic processes are illegitimate and the targeted groups are excluded from participation in the political process.  An effort to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elected leaders and democratic elective processes and republican institutions, even from within, are part and parcel of the fascist cause.
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.  Intentions are obscured by language that is nonsensical or simplistic.  The purpose of Newspeak is to undermine critical thinking and disagreement.

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